Our van made it four blocks before getting pulled over. Over the top of the stacked luggage I saw that we were not being stopped by a marked vehicle. It was a sedan with one of those portable ‘Kojak’ red lights stuck to its roof.
“You got somebody named Arch Patton in that thing?” the driver was asked. I spied the questioner from my spot in the back seat on the passenger side. A knowing sigh escaped from me. The man was obviously an FBI agent. Their kind wore the same uniform. A suit of mediocre color and quality, coupled with a short cheap haircut. Sunglasses had been added over the years, following an FBI director’s enchantment with the cheesy movie Smokey and the Bandit. I opened the door and got out.
“You Patton?” one of them said, as I strode around the rear quarter of the van.
I nodded, curious to see where the other man or woman might be. The bureau only traveled in twos. Someone occupied the passenger seat of car. My curiosity was slaked.
“Where’s the kid?” the agent pressed me. I played dumb.
“He in the van?” he added.
I shrugged a different way. I didn’t care for the FBI, as an organization, or most of the people they employed.
“You got some I.D.?” he then asked, his tone changing.
He had read the undisguised nuance conveyed by my unresponsiveness. I didn’t answer. I just stood there.
“Alright, let’s start again.” He produced his flip-out badge and I.D. “We’re FBI which you know, and you’re Patton, CIA, which we know. We came to pick up the kid, which you also know. We can wait.”
He put away his badge case, which I had ignored, then went back to stand by his vehicle. I knew that they would wait until hell froze over. The FBI was not real swift, but they were patient as the devil. I walked over to where he stood, next to the passenger window. I addressed both agents.
“He’s not going with you. It’s his decision. He’s an adult. He can do what he wants. You don’t need to know why. I’m headed into Nome, which you’d know soon enough anyway. I’ve got a small entourage with me,” I motioned with my head and shoulder toward the van.
“Immigration Agent Maxwell’s going to depart that ship and try to make all sorts of trouble. I’d appreciate it if you took care of that, like only you guys can. In return, there’s a German national named Borman running around town. He’s an eco-terrorist, or something close. It might do a great deal for your career if you brought him in for questioning. Ask him about his relationship with the Captain of a Russian Naval Cruiser, that was caught violating U.S. waters earlier.”
The agents looked at each other, then at me. The talking agent spoke again.
“So, you’re not turning the kid over to our custody?” he said.
I shook my head.
“There is no custody. He’s twenty-three, and a little screwed up right now. He just needs to take a break. Let him run free for a while. He was locked up over there for some time.”
I didn’t expect any sympathy from the FBI. They all believed, end masse, that anyone locked up in the first place needed to be kept imprisoned for life, no matter what State or Country such event might take place in. It was part of their training. This particular agent shocked me.
“We understand. We’ll hang around for a bit. Can we use this guy’s name as a reason for deeper inquiry?”
Then the light came on. They’d taken the Borman bait I’d so casually thrown out. This meant that they had backgrounded everyone on the ‘Lindy’, and that Borman had come up a little short. We, all of us in the business, called it corroboration.
“Anything else we can do for you?”
I looked at both of them seriously for the first time. They seemed genuine, but I had been fooled before.
“What the hell,” I whispered to myself, and then spoke out loud. “How about a Smith and Wesson Five Hundred Magnum with a four inch barrel?”
They looked at me with mild awe in their widened eyes.
“God, what do you want a hand cannon like that for? We thought your mission was over? What’s going on?”
I debated with myself about what to share with them. I didn’t really need the gun, but it would provide a lot of security, at least psychological, if I did find a way to get back to the damned island and go after the gold. I also knew that the Agency would not provide weaponry for personal expeditions of any sort. And I didn’t have the time to wait out a background clearance approval for the purchase of a handgun. The Agency wasn’t going to like me vanishing from their radar one little bit, either. If I did disappear from their radar. I needed to be armed if I could somehow arrange it.
“Get it to the Nugget Inn, up in Nome, if you find one. I’ll owe you, and I pay those debts, as you know. Maybe when you are done down here you can just head up North. I think there’s going to be some work for you up there. That’s all I can tell you right now.”
I knew I was breaking an unspoken rule, in that the CIA gave as little to the FBI as it could, even if it meant it was hurting itself or the success of a mission might be compromised. True, I also knew I was about to go off on my own. In the event of real trouble, there would be no magic numbers to call. There would no F-15 dust-offs. No re-directing the ire of Maxwell, or his evil-seeming minions.
“We’ll see what we can do,” the agent said.
For some reason, I believed him.
“What’s your name?” I asked, as I prepared to re-enter the van.
“Special Agents Kolchak and Berle.” The standing agent, who’d done all the talking, pointed first at his own chest, then the head of the silent sitting agent.
I forced myself not to smile. I was still in Wonderland. Leaving the ship had not changed anything at all. The Night Stalker, and Milton Berle. God’s sense of humor was beyond arcane, or the FBI’s sense of humor had improved dramatically.
I got back in the vehicle, slammed the door, and then instructed the driver.
“Take us to that long finger of a pier, at the north end of the docks.”.
My fellow travelers, all of whom showed surprise, except the blasé Basque, seemed not to notice what had occurred at all.
“We’re going to see the Lindy off,” I said, as if that explained anything.
I slipped the driver an extra twenty to drive us right onto and down the dock. Several people scurried to get out of the way, but they didn’t seem to mind.
When we reached the terminus, everyone piled out. With the luggage, we stacked a chair for Hathoot to sit on. Then I dragged out boxes of Don David Malbec and Diamond Bakery crackers. The Lindy was already underway by the time I had uncorked a bottle. I passed it around. The Basque sat on the edge of the dock, her bare feet dangling into the ice-cold water. The boys leaned on the luggage. We all took several pulls from the bottle of Malbec. The mission was officially concluded. My prohibition, mostly kept, from drinking was over. I opened the box of crackers, to add the appropriate touch to our toasting effort. But I did not discover a package of crackers inside. Instead, I slowly pulled a blue Lindy sweater from the box.
“What the hell?” Hathoot said, staring. I unfolded the sweater. There was a note pinned to it. I removed it, unfolded a small piece of white paper, and then read the inscription to myself: “This is my cruise sweater. I wore it to bed every night since the time we first met. Keep it close, until we meet again.” It was signed with the single letter “M.”
“Well, what did the damn note say?” a nosy Hathoot asked.
I crumpled the paper, before throwing it out into the bay. I did not respond to his question. I clutched the wool to my chest, almost giving in to a powerful desire to hold the garment to my face and breathe in deeply. The M/S World Discoverer sailed past us. It was fully a mile out into the middle of the harbor, so we could not make out individuals with our naked eyes. She moved on, toward the Western Bay in silence. Nobody said anything, as we passed the Don David among us. After the ship and the wine were gone, Ken floated a comment.
“It’s kinda neat, but why’d we come down to see the ‘Lindy’ off?” Minutes went by, before I answered.
“Mission. Our family just sailed out that harbor. We had a mission. It’s vital that we keep in mind what’s important, as we conclude one adventure and move on to another. We’re going to get the gold from that island. We’re going to do it for all of us, or none of us.” I concluded my short speech.
My new team was the most ragged, damaged one I had ever worked with. It would have to do.
“What gold? both boys said, as one.
I massaged my forehead with both hands.
“You tell them,” I instructed Hathoot.
I started helping our driver get all the luggage back into the van. We rode to the nearest downtown hotel, called the Totem Square Inn. The boys talked excitedly for the entire short trip. I got three rooms for the lot of us. The Basque got her own room. The boys were booked together, and I put myself in with Hathoot. He complained, of course, about his money, the loss of his job, and my fault in all of it. I remained silent, mentally rehearsing myself to talk to my control officer at the Agency.
I waited until late morning to make my call. Everyone, except the Basque, slept in. She was in the lobby, where I went to get coffee after finishing my thirty-minute conversation. The call went well, until Webb handed me off to an analysis officer named Boatwright. I listened to the strangest ‘chewing-out’ I’d ever received, from a man who wasn’t even in operations. Apparently, the analyst had somehow become personally responsible for Kenneth’s reunion with his father. For one of the few times in my career, I hung up on an Agency officer in the middle of a call.
I sat in the threadbare lobby. The blond veneered furniture was dated and ugly, but it was adequate for just lounging around. The Basque asked me how it had all gone.
“The papers proved to be no problem. Filipe and Gloria will have what they need, and Marlys and her Mom, too. General delivery, waiting for them at the post office in Waikiki. I’ll just have to get word to them to pick it all up. Your stuff will come to the Nugget in Nome, express. And Ivan’s, as well. No problem. They aren’t happy with Ken’s decision not to go home. But there’s nothing they can do about it. They’re even less happy about my taking a couple of weeks off on vacation. They don’t believe me. They don’t trust me. But then they never have.”
I drank some of my coffee, not expecting a response.
“Should they?” she asked, drinking something from her own cup.
It wasn’t coffee, that I knew. I thought about her question. It didn’t really call for an answer. It was rhetorical. The Basque was an intelligent enigma. She took in information, like the Agency, and gave out almost none, like the Agency. I wasn’t certain I liked her, but I respected her.
We flew out in the afternoon, paying a fortune for last minute tickets on Alaska Air, and for our severely overweight baggage. We had to hide the wine inside our other stuff, as they wouldn’t even consider approving its transportation. We had to transfer in Anchorage, and then fly out of there at midnight. It was still summer, however, so it was still very light. Our arrival in Nome was, as before, in the early morning hours. There were no vans and only two broken down taxis.
Both drivers were asleep, not even awakened by the sound of a jet liner on final taxi.
The run into the middle of Nome took only moments. I paid the fare with some of Hathoot’s money. We weren’t running low on cash, but every dollar was going to have to count. There would be no way to replenish our cash reserves. None that I could think of, anyway.
Nobody manned the Nugget’s front desk, but I had expected that. The drivers piled our luggage into the foyer.
“Let’s go,” I said to everyone present. “We’ll sleep later.”
I led them to the glass doors of the restaurant. When we were assembled, I pushed lightly against the right door. It opened. I smiled. We went into a shambled mess. It was not as bad as it had been my last time around, but I bet myself that the place was left in a sad state every night out of deliberation. It was a strange Alaskan tradition. My definition of strange had changed dramatically, however, over the passage of the past few weeks. Deep down, I was glad the place needed us so badly.
I set everyone to work. I found the manager’s apron in the back room, hanging on a hook. I donned it. Only Hathoot lounged, still unable to actively get about. He did make the coffee and then made sure everyone had enough of it. He’d also brought in his small CD player, now reclaimed. The contacts, where he had rewired it to record events in my shipboard cabin, had deteriorated. He tinkered to make it work.
I cleaned the stoves while I watched him fiddle. I had fallen asleep at the Totem listening to him drone on and on, endlessly, about the beauty and wonder of Benito. If only he had been able to stay aboard, he could have lived in complete bliss. If we had to stay together in the future, I determined right then that we would each room with one of the boys.
The Basque labored like a fiend, clearing tables and getting all the dishes done. The boys mopped the floors and even did the windows, which hadn’t seen care in years. By the time the owner came in, I was serving scrambled eggs with bacon and sausage to everyone. He positioned himself near the double doors, looking around. His eyes met mine.
“You, you’re back. You’ve decided to take my offer.” He laughed, as he advanced toward us. “But who are your friends?”
He stuck out his big hand to each person as he approached, except the Basque. He simply bowed to her, and then moved on to where I stood. He pointed at the ‘Cochon’ apron I wore.
Then he laughed openly. “It sure suits you to a ‘T.’
“Breakfast?” I asked him, frowning.
I had not intended to claim the man’s title. He took a seat next to Hathoot at the bar, and then rocked back and forth. I served him what the rest of us were eating and poured him a bowl of coffee.
“There’s no ship in the harbor this time,” he said, between bites.
“I came about one, though,” I said, leaning into the counter across from him.
His eyebrows went up, but he didn’t reply. He was too busy with his breakfast.
“Well, you sure can cook, to add to your other talents.” He looked around at my companions.
“Anthropology. Somehow, these people are all traveling with you, or at least gathered here with you, as a result of your being an anthropologist?”
He knew better. His last question to me, I recalled, which had gone unanswered at the time, had been
“Who are you really?” He was still searching for that answer.
“That boat you mentioned…” I began, but he cut me off.
“The Retriever. Ship, not a boat. Boats are under a hundred feet. The Retriever is right at a hundred. The last Landing Craft Tank ship around. Leftover from the big war. Used later by NASA to recover space capsules, hence the name. Three two-twenty horse Detroit diesels. She’ll make eight knots carrying over a hundred tons, and through the roughest seas this ocean can throw at her. I still got her. What do you want her for?” He sat back, rocking, his breakfast consumed. I refilled his bowl of coffee.
“What’s your name?” I asked, to delay him.
He was way ahead of where I wanted him to be. He had lived in Alaska a long time, and served in the Navy before that. Not much got by him. It made me uncomfortable. When he didn’t answer right away, I pressed the point.
“And don’t tell me you have one of these exotic names I have become so used to hearing up here.”
He rocked some more.
“John Smith, proprietor of the Golden Nugget and captain of the Retriever,” he said, then stuck out his hand.
“Arch Patton. Late of the M/S World Discoverer. Some people call me ‘Indy,’ but I don’t much like that. I’m soon to be transport chief aboard the Retriever, however, if we can come to terms. What do you want for her?”
I took his hand and shook it. We both warmed to the other. I genuinely liked the man. I had from the first moment I had met him. Rough around the edges, that John Smith, Captain. It came to me in a flash. Captain John Smith. Pocahontas and the Jamestown mythology. There it was again, I realized. I could not climb out of the rabbit hole, no matter how close I came to the edge. But my liking the man was tempered, by recent experience. I had also liked the Captain of the Russian Cruiser, for a time.
“Not for sale. I’ll rent her, but only if I’m the captain,” Smith insisted.
He drank from his bowl. I stared at him. Was he holding me up for a higher price? My memory was not off. He had told me earlier, quite clearly, that the boat was for sale or rent. I tried a different tack.
“We’ll be out there, running from island to island for quite some time. Weeks, maybe months. Who’s going to run this place while you are gone?” I smiled at the man, as if to reassure him that I was actually trying to help him.
“Not many months. Not in these waters. Winter comes early up here, not that you’d notice just yet. Maybe a month and a half. And there really aren’t many inhabited islands out there. Besides, I’ve got a manager now. She’s a beaut. Be here in a bit. Take me along. It’ll be cheaper. And you’ll need me, unless you’ve captained a boat in these waters before. What do you have for money?”
He smiled back at me, with the same smile, as if he was actually trying to help me. I liked him all the more. He was right, I knew. The waters were terribly treacherous, and we’d be running in and out of shallow waters. None of us had any experience in such things.
I carefully unstrapped one of the leather bands of Krueggerrands I had left. I rolled it into a ball, then set it in front of him.
“Jesus Christ,” he swore loudly, staring down at the edges of the revealed coins. “Krugers, no less,” he breathed. “How many you got?”
After a few moments of silence, he fingered the belt, and then eased one of the coins from its case. He massaged it lovingly.
“Good God, man, what are you into?”
He mouthed each syllable with reverence. His eyes, however, never left the coin.
“We’re into gold, as you see before you. You can come along, but it’s not been a smooth sail so far. There are bodies back there, behind us. Maybe some in front of us, too. Are you sure that this is something you want to do?”
I posed the last question without inflection. All of us waited for his answer in complete silence.
The Retriever was our only hope of transportation. The key to the continuance of the mission rested with the decision of one eccentric man. Captain John Smith suddenly stood up, and then walked away. We all looked at each other, but said nothing. In seconds, he was back; once again taking his seat. He placed a heavy wrapped box in front of me.
“This’d be yours, I presume,” he intoned, quietly.
I knew what was in the box without even touching the wrapping. On the brown paper was written “Patton” in big red letters. Underneath them were smaller letters: “We’re backing your play down here. We expect you’ll back our play up there.”
Maybe, just maybe, we would not be playing without any support at all.
“You look inside it?” I asked Smith, directly.
“Does a hobby horse have a wooden dick?” he shot right back.
I fought back laughter.
“And so?” I inquired.
“It’s a big bore. I like big bores. Gotta fifty “Ma-Deuce” under the floorboards of the ship. Now, that’s a big bore.”
Still, no one in our team spoke, as I considered with some excitement what great value there might be to possessing a fifty-caliber machine gun in the time ahead. But we had to have commitment.
“And so?” I said again.
“I’m in,” he announced, his voice very soft, but missed by none of us.
It was as if a director on a Hollywood set said “ACTION.” Noise began again, as the Basque cleared the plates. The boys went back to working on the windows and Hathoot banged the button on his CD player, to see if he could bully it into working again. Music came out of it: Don’t, Don’t, Don’t, Don’t you forget about me. Will you stand above me? Look my way and never love me, Rain keeps falling, rain keeps falling, Down, Down, Down, Down,”
I recognized the song. It was by a group called “Simple Minds.” Again, in spite of my lack of belief, I felt God was speaking in His obscure fashion.
I took my apron off, then held it out and examined it.
“Hey Ken, you speak French. What does this really mean? Everyone turned to look at me, silent again, as before. John Smith stared, his face a blank. The boy walked over, looked at the inscription, then around at everyone waiting, and then directly at me. I saw conflict sweep across his face for a brief second, before he answered.
“Ah, Indy, it means “The Boss.’”